Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)*
[On New Year’s Eve I had supper with my landlady and the other lodgers. I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose. The place was crammed. It was difficult to say who was dancing and who was merely standing up. After hunting about for some time, I came upon Arthur in a corner. He was sitting at a table with another, rather younger gentleman who wore an eyeglass and had sleek dark hair.
“Ah, here you are, William. We were beginning to fear that you’d deserted us. May I introduce two of my most valued friends to each other? Mr. Bradshaw—Baron von Pregnitz.”
The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:
“Excuse me. Do you know Naples?”
“No. I’ve never been there.”
“Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.”
“Perhaps so,” I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink well-shaved face by means of some horrible surgical operation.
“Perhaps you were at Juan-les-Pins last year?”
“No, I’m afraid I wasn’t.”
“Yes, I see.” He smiled in polite regret. “In that case I must beg your pardon.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said. We both laughed very heartily. Arthur, evidently pleased that I was making a good impression on the Baron, laughed too. I drank a glass of champagne off at a gulp. A three-man band was playing: Gruss’ mir mein Hawai, ich bleib’ Dir treu, ich hab’ Dich gerne. The dancers, locked frigidly together, swayed in partial-paralytic rhythms under a huge sunshade suspended from the ceiling and oscillating gently through cigarette smoke and hot rising air.
“Don’t you find it a trifle stuffy in here?” Arthur asked anxiously.
In the windows were bottles filled with coloured liquids brilliantly illuminated from beneath, magenta, emerald, vermilion. They seemed to be lighting up the whole room. The cigarette smoke made my eyes smart until the tears ran down my face. The music kept dying away, then surging up fearfully loud. I passed my hand down the shiny black oil-cloth curtains in the alcove behind my chair. Oddly enough, they were quite cold. The lamps were like alpine cowbells. And there was a fluffy white monkey perched above the bar. In another moment, when I had drunk exactly the right amount of champagne, I should have a vision. I took a sip. And now, with extreme clarity, without passion or malice, I saw what Life really is. It had something, I remember, to do with the revolving sunshade. Yes, I murmured to myself, let them dance. They are dancing. I am glad.
“You know, I like this place. Extraordinarily,” I told the Baron with enthusiasm. He did not seem surprised.
Arthur was solemnly stifling a belch.
“Dear Arthur, don’t look so sad. Are you tired?”
“No, not tired, William. Only a little contemplative, perhaps. Such an occasion as this is not without its solemn aspect. You young people are quite right to enjoy yourselves. I don’t blame you for a moment. One has one’s memories.”
“Memories are the most precious things we have,” said the Baron with approval. As intoxication proceeded, his face seemed slowly to disintegrate. A rigid area of paralysis formed round the monocle. The monocle was holding his face together. He gripped it desperately with his facial muscles, cocking his disengaged eyebrow, his mouth sagging slightly at the corners, minute beads of perspiration appearing along the parting of his thin, satin-smooth dark hair. Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.
“Excuse me, please. May I ask you something?”
“By all means.”
“Have you read Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne?”
“Yes, I have.”
“And tell me, please, how did you like it?”
“Very much indeed.”
“Then I am very glad. Yes, so did I. Very much.”
And now we were all standing up. What had happened? It was midnight. Our glasses touched.
“Cheerio,” said the Baron, with the air of one who makes a particularly felicitous quotation.
“Allow me,” said Arthur, “to wish you both every success and happiness in nineteen thirty-one. Every success…” His voice trailed off uneasily into silence. Nervously he fingered his heavy fringe of hair. A tremendous crash exploded from the band. Like a car which has slowly, laboriously reached the summit of the mountain railway, we plunged headlong downwards into the New Year.]
Christopher Isherwood will not be the overbearing subject of poe continuously, but due to my mild infatuation with his writings, there is a wide range of material from which to draw. As the Gregorian New Year is upon us, this selection is rather apt. On the first reading of Mr. Norris Changes Trains, this passage stood out. For my holiday vacation reading selection**, I had chosen to indulge the above mentioned infatuation by rereading Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and came across this familiar passage and delighted in its symmetry with the time of year and whimsical imagery.
This scene of New Year’s revelry takes place early in the novel, and we have only just met Arthur Norris, a character who develops fascinatingly throughout the narrative. This is also our first glimpse of Baron von Pregnitz, who goes by Kuno for much of the novel, and it is one of our first animal-referenced physical descriptions which Isherwood employs so well in his vivid character portraits. Kuno is fishy and suave, like a cod, often “swimming” through his surroundings. My favorite brief moment in this excerpt is,
“Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.”
The image is so simple but evocative in my mind, I can just picture the man oozing in to ask William his question. (William is in fact supposed to be Isherwood himself.) The slow degradation of their evening is also very humourous, and gives us other silly descriptions of the Baron, most amusingly in reference to that monocle! It practically holds his otherwise drooping and drunk face together. Even in a drunken stupor, Kuno can muster the strength of will to hold that glass to his eye.
As we all move into our New Year’s Eve celebrations, we can draw parallels to Isherwood’s experience described here. In a drunken moment of clarity, he realizes some sort of epiphany on the meaning of it all, only to have us realize his drunken visions are quite silly. We may have all been in a place where drink or other intoxicants deliver truth to us, no? There is the sentimentality of the New Year as well, which we sometimes feel on this auspicious time of year, just like Arthur. And we are reminded that time will keep on chugging, just like that train steaming over the hill into Isherwood’s new year. We can pause, celebrate and reflect, but that dive into the future is inevitable.
*Mr. Norris Changes Trains was published in the United States as The Last of Mr. Norris, due to a recommendation from Isherwood’s publisher, who assumed Americans would not understand the concept of changing trains, as we used the terminology to transfer trains. Isherwood tells us in one of his autobiographies that this was a grave mistake as it only led to confusion amongst his readers and a lifetime of having to clarify this point. Usually, this story is combined with Goodbye to Berlin in the collected volume commonly known as The Berlin Stories.